Given that The Thing (2011), directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., has just opened in cinemas virtually worldwide (it doesn’t come to Belgium until 2 November, at which point Picturenose will of course be providing a review), and our faithful readers have probably already heard more than enough about how much I adore John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which the new film is an apparently very faithful prequel to, I thought it was only fair to go back to the very first film to be adapted from John W. Campbell Jr.’s sublime novella, Who Goes There?, namely the Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks sci-fi, The Thing fom Another World (1951). A brief warning in advance – those expecting me to tow the party line of ‘Oh, it’s a classic, and the remake(s) is/are nowhere near as good’, are likely to be disappointed, fair enough?
Now don’t get me wrong – Nyby’s version of Campbell Jr.’s original story (and renowned producer Hawks is listed above as joint director because, even though he was not credited as such on the credits, it has long been accepted that he was in fact the primary creative force behind the picture, with apocraphy indicating that even Orson Welles may have helped out in the director’s chair) is a relatively thrilling and innovative film of its time, and it was by and large the first Hollywood film to feature a truly malevolent alien.
However, as anyone who has read the original story and/or watched Carpenter’s version (and van Heijningen Jr.’s version, here’s hoping) will tell you, the first film completely dispensed with the notion of the alien being a shape-shifter, which was so crucial to the paranoia of Campbell Jr.’s chilling tale and Carpenter’s brilliant adaptation.
Again, TTFAW can be forgiven for this; the amazing Rob Bottin S/FX of 1982, which still stand up brilliantly after 30 years as organic alien body-horror par excellence, were obviously not within the remit of the cinematic technology of 1951. However, it must be asked how well the original Thing (played by James Arness) has aged and, in the opinion of this reviewer, not too well at all.
I mean, let’s face it – no amount of atmospheric, icy visuals or build-up in the (admittedly very good) script by Charles Lederer, Hawks (uncredited) and Ben Hecht (uncredited) is going to convince anyone that The Thing, when it is finally revealed, is anything other than a tall man (it was in fact the famous Western star of the time, James Arness) running around in what appears to be a Boris Karloff-Frankenstein monster suit.
And yet, and yet…TTFAW does still hold a fascination, even 60 years on – the set-up (the military, led by no-nonsense man of action Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) discover alien craft and alien in isolated part of the globe, namely Antartica, and find themselves seemingly powerless against the intruder, while well-meaning scientist Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) intones ‘There is so much we could learn from this creature, etc’ before being casually swatted aside by the beast, before plucky, feisty love interest Nikki Nicholson (Margaret Sheridan) comes up with a great idea, roll credits) has since become completely hackneyed but, at the time, it was original and exciting.
In addition, it has more than a few moments of real power, such as when the team casually open a door to come face to face with the monster, and the creature’s last stand – but turning the alien into a “vegetable” creation (which is about the only reference to the core of Campbell Jr.’s story, apart from the film’s setting and the discovery of the alien’s spacecraft) has dated the film badly.
However, it does have one of cinema’s most enduring pay-off lines to its credit: ‘Keep watching the skies!” It’s fair to say that audiences since have certainly taken that idea to heart – let’s see what the latest version has to offer.